“In the designs of Providence there are no mere coincidences,” declared St John Paul II in Fatima on May 12, 1982, a day short of the first anniversary of Mehmet Ali Agca’s attempt on the then Pope’s life in St Peter’s Square.
Although two bullets, fired at close range, pierced the Pontiff’s abdomen, no major organs were struck, with one bullet having missed his heart and aorta by a few inches.
The saint attributed his survival that day to the intercession of Our Lady of Fatima and on his first visit to Fatima he visited the chapel of the apparitions which housed the statue of Our Lady, carrying one of the bullets that had wounded him. He slowly approached the statue, placing the bullet in her crown, murmuring, according to the Portuguese Cardinal Jose Savaira Martins: “You saved me, you saved me.”
For St John Paul II, Cardinal Saraiva Martins said, the three pilgrimages he would make to Fatima were those of a grateful son to the mother who saved his life.
The Pope believed “It was a mother’s hand that guided the bullet’s path”. He based this view, it would seem, not merely on the fact that the assassination attempt had taken place on the anniversary of the first appearance of Our Lady to Lucia dos Santos and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta, but on the fact that the so-called ‘Third Secret of Fatima’, which he would make public in 2000, involved the gunning down beneath a hail of bullets of “a bishop clothed in white”.
Nothing is an accident, the Pontiff believed, convinced that the assassination attempt and its date, as well as his survival and the continuation of his papacy, were all manifestations of God’s greater design.
Not that he believed he had been uniquely singled out by God in this way. To his mind, everyone in the whole world has a part to play in the salvation drama that is history as written and seen by God. He believed this had been a core message of the Second Vatican Council, coming as it had done in the aftermath of the Second World War and at the height of the Cold War with nuclear armageddon far from being a distant prospect.
Life is not without purpose, he felt, and what we do here matters, with the Church being called to tell the world the story of its redemption as worked out through billions of lives. To do this, the Polish Pope believed, the Church needed to be allowed to speak, needed to be able to contest the limits of the state and proclaim the value of the human person, and to do so publicly.
The Church had not always behaved this way, St John Paul II realised, but he believed this was what the Second Vatican Council had envisaged it as being called to do.
Nine years later, on May 12, 1991, he revisited Fatima, meeting with the then 84-year-old Sr Lucia dos Santos, before returning to Rome on the 10th anniversary of the assassination attempt to give thanks to Mary for his survival and much more.
Calling Fatima a constant reference point for living the Gospel, and highlighting Mary’s “palpable, penetrating call” for us to mould ourselves to God’s ways, St John Paul thanked Our Lady for “having guided with maternal tenderness peoples to freedom”, a clear reference to the liberation of eastern Europe from communism.
He was aware, of course, of how Our Lady had called in 1917 for the consecration of Russia, and had lived through decades of communist oppression under a Poland that was under the thumb of the Russia-led Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
In the years since his first visit to Fatima, however, reform movements in the USSR had come to dominate, with the Soviet Premier Mikael Gorbachev reversing the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’ that the Soviet Union would intervene if socialism were threatened in any of the Warsaw Pact states. 1989 saw reforms in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland, with the latter country’s Solidarity movement being allowed to stand in elections – winning almost every seat in the country’s parliament – and Germany’s Berlin Wall, the great symbol of Cold War division, being torn down.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was formally dissolved just a few months after the saint’s second pilgrimage to Fatima. The story of his role in the Cold War’s end, of his relationship with US President Ronald Reagan, who shared the Pope’s view that communism was a moral evil, and of the inspiration he gave the Polish people in the Solidarity movement and their struggle with Soviet overlords, has been told at length elsewhere.
In 2000, St John Paul II beatified Francisco and Jacinta, the two child visionaries who would go on to be canonised last weekend, and made public the ‘Third Secret of Fatima’, not least to dampen apocalyptic speculations that for some were almost feverish in the millennium year.
June of that same year also saw the pardoning by the Italian state of Mehmet Ali Agca, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment after the assassination attempt. The then Pope had long forgiven the Turk, of course: in 1981 he asked people to “pray for my brother (Agca), whom I have sincerely forgiven”, and in 1983 the Pope and the unsuccessful assassin met and spoke privately in Agca’s Rebibbia prison, with the Pontiff meeting Agca’s mother and brother on other occasions.
When the Pope and his would-be killer had met in Rebibbia prison, Agca had told him of how he feared the vengeance of Our Lady of Fatima. He was convinced that the assassination and his own escape were so well-planned that they could not have failed without supernatural intervention. On having learned that the assassination attempt had been on the anniversary of the first apparition of Our Lady in Fatima, he became convinced that the same “goddess of Fatima” who had saved John Paul’s life would punish him.
The Pontiff reminded him that Mary is venerated by Muslims, and said that Agca should not fear the Mother of God who loves all people. It’s a lesson to be remembered by us all, especially in light of how, at his final visit to Fatima in 2000, St John Paul II had focused on the absolute nature of the Fatima seers’ response to Mary.
“Ask your parents and teachers to enrol you in the ‘school’ of Our Lady, so that she can teach you to be like the little shepherds, who tried to do whatever she asked them,” he urged the Portuguese children before him, quoting St Louis de Montfort’s dictum that one makes more progress in short periods of dependence on Mary than during whole years of self-reliant personal initiatives.
“This was how the little shepherds became saints so quickly,” he said.